Her hair is beautiful. Long and black, flowing down her back in a perfect cascade. She stares into the mirror, brushing her hair with an expression of joyful anticipation. Even in the harsh light of the room, her eyes sparkle.
I watch her in silence from the air vent near the ceiling. I sweep a claw to my right to bring up my optical display. A few taps on the digital projection record the details of the room: temperature, lighting levels, and other details that she’s chosen for optimal comfort. With another motion, I dismiss the display and return to my observation.
Her name is Lily Anderson. She is a research assistant on this vessel. Humans have only just reached this sector of the galaxy. Understanding them is vital before we make contact, to avoid the kind of disastrous misunderstandings that have led us to galactic war in the past.
I am a research assistant, as well. A scientist and anthropologist, specializing in alien beings. I chose this particular human to focus my observation on after I noticed our similarities. Having a basis for identifying with her makes understanding so much easier. I think I almost have enough to attempt contact. Tonight should be the final piece.
Lily is preparing for a human courtship ritual called a “date”. As I understand it, this ritual meeting determines compatibility for mating. I’m not sticking around for that part, of course. I’m a scientist, not a voyeur. But courtship is such a central part of human culture that we need a thorough understanding of it before making contact.
She’s putting her hair into the complicated pattern that this event calls for. She hums as she works, a popular tune that I’ve heard before on the ship. She seems very happy. I can’t help myself and let out a little chitter of happiness.
The sound must have been louder than I thought because she turns around to look for the source. I stay perfectly still and silent, waiting to see what she does next. After a moment, she shrugs and turns back to her preparations. I activate my display again to make a note of the error. I may have underestimated human hearing.
After I make my note, I turn away from Lily’s room and move quietly through the air duct into the corridor. Her potential mate should be arriving soon, an engineer named Karl. Almost as soon as I have the thought, I see him through another vent. He has prepared as well. His scent is different than I have smelled him before. He has also chosen flattering clothing and carries a bundle of colorful plants in his hand. They are a gift for her if I remember the custom. He seems happy as well. I suppress another chitter and make a quick note, then settle in to watch their greeting.
He knocks on the door to alert her that he has arrived. She opens it and greets him with a friendly baring of teeth called a “smile”. I have learned many of these human expressions, enough to read their nonverbal cues on at least a basic level. Their language, however, is far more difficult. My colleagues and I have been working on a translation program, but it is far from complete.
“Hi.” Her voice is softer than usual. Like many females of her kind, Lily’s voice is light and melodic. It is a pleasant effect.
"Hi. You look great.” His voice is deeper than hers and scratchy. Still a very nice sound.
She indicates the plants in his hand. “Are those for me?”
“Yeah.” One of the dozens of phrases answering in the affirmative. I’m getting good at this.
They walk together down the corridor to another, larger room. I follow in the air duct, glancing through vents to make sure I am going the right way. The room they go to is lavishly decorated, with music playing through the speakers. There are screens displaying camera images of the stars outside. Actual windows on a starship are far too dangerous to be used more than absolutely necessary. But humans, like us, enjoy the effect.
They sit on furniture called “chairs”. Before I started my research, I wondered how humans made do with only two legs. Now I understand the increased maneuverability of the design and the ingenious way they limit strain on the muscles.
I watch from a vent as they talk back and forth. I can’t understand most of what they’re saying, but their happiness is obvious. Human popular culture contains many references to this particular courtship ritual. I have grown quite fond of their “romance”. Without thinking, I chitter again.
Her eyes snap straight to the vent this time. “Karl, did you hear that? I think I heard it in my room earlier.”
Karl follows her eyes. “I heard it. It sounds like it came from there. I’ll check it out.” He stands and walks to the vent.
Oh, no. I try to back away, but this duct is too tight. He’s going to see me. This is a disaster. I panic and bring up my optical display, hoping desperately that the translation program works.
“OH DEAR GOD, WHAT IS THAT?” His voice is very loud, indicating either fear or aggression. This is bad. Very bad.
I step forward carefully, with my forearms raised to show surrender. Lily screams. “KARL, IT’S ATTACKING!”
I finally find the translation program. It is far from finished, but I try to choose words that indicate non-aggression. My mandibles are incapable of forming human speech, so I have to hope it comes out of the program properly.
“hello, human. i am study. do not resist.” Wait, that’s not right, is it?
They scream and run from the room. A moment later, an alarm starts blaring. Oh, no. This is very, very bad. I have to fix it, to explain that we’re not enemies. All six of my legs work as quickly as possible to run after Karl and Lily.
There is no one in the corridor. I see a door slam near the end. Perhaps it’s them? I run quickly and am relieved to hear Lily’s voice behind the door.
“. . . like a giant spider. It didn’t hurt you, did it?”
Karl’s voice is shaky. “No, I managed to dodge the claws. Don’t worry, Lily. I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”
I fiddle with the translation program. This should work. “stop run. not know human. need to learn. please.”
Only the first two words get out before they start screaming again. Heavy, booted feet begin running down the corridor. Angry voices sound, followed by weapons being pointed at me.
Oh, no. Oh, NO. I have to fix this. We really can’t afford another war. I frantically work the translator. “human are new in territory. need to study for fighting stop.” No, no, that’s the wrong order . . .
The weapons fire. I feel the pain in my abdomen. Damn. This will be war for sure. Unless . . .
“lily. want talk lily.”
Karl approaches. “You stay away from her, you monster.”
“No, Karl, wait.” Lily’s voice sounds curious, if hesitant. My vision starts to dim as she kneels next to me. “Why do you want to talk to me?”
I struggle with the translator. “take. eye picture. research. not fight.”
She reaches down to touch the device over my eye. “This? You want me to . . . oh, God. I am so, so sorry.”
I can’t see anymore, but I hear her talking. “It’s not hostile, it’s a scientist. It must have been studying us, trying to learn. Quick, get it to medical, maybe we can save it.”
I manage the translator one more time. “thank. sorry.”
Then I black out. I really hope I wake up.